© Reuters. The remains of a Tesla vehicle can be seen after an accident in The Woodlands, Texas
By David Shepardson and Hyunjoo Jin
WASHINGTON / BERKELEY (Reuters) – Texas police will issue search warrants against Tesla (NASDAQ 🙂 Inc on Tuesday to back up data from a fatal vehicle accident, a senior executive told Reuters on Monday after CEO Elon Musk said there were corporate audits the car’s autopilot revealed the driver assistance system was not activated.
Mark Herman, Harris County Constable Precinct 4, said evidence, including testimony, clearly indicated no one was in the driver’s seat of the Model S when it hit a tree Saturday night, killing two people.
Herman said in a tweet from Musk Monday afternoon that data logs retrieved from the company precluded use of the autopilot system so far, which were the first officials to hear about the company.
“If he tweeted this, if he had already checked the data, he didn’t tell us,” Herman told Reuters. “We are eagerly awaiting these dates.”
The accident is the 28th Telsa accident under investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which regulates vehicle safety.
It is also under review by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which removed Tesla as a party to an earlier investigation into a fatal crash in 2018 after the company released details of the probe without authorization.
In Saturday’s accident, the 2019 Tesla Model S was traveling at high speed near Houston when it failed to turn and pulled off the road, hit a tree and went up in flames, Herman said.
Authorities found the bodies of two men in the car, one in the passenger seat and the owner of the car in the back seat.
“We have testimony from people who said they went to test the vehicle without a driver and show the friend how to drive it,” Herman said.
Tesla’s autopilot is a driver assistance system that performs some driving tasks and allows the driver to temporarily take their hands off the steering wheel. According to Tesla, however, its functions “require active driver monitoring and do not make the vehicle autonomous”.
In his tweet, Musk dismissed the idea that the vehicle’s semi-automatic driving software was to blame: “Previously restored data logs show that autopilot was not activated and this car didn’t purchase FSD,” in a reference to Full Self-Driving, Tesla’s separate semi-automatic Beta driver assistance system that still requires driver monitoring.
Musk added that “a standard autopilot would require turning on lane lines that this road didn’t have,” referring to road markings that need to be captured by a vehicle’s cameras in order to activate the autopilot.
Tesla has access to operational and diagnostic data, which are transmitted to its servers at “regular intervals” from the car seized by the police. It is unclear whether investigators can get data directly from the incident data recorder in the badly burned vehicle.
Just a few hours before the accident, Musk had tweeted: “Tesla with autopilot on is now approaching a ten times lower chance of an accident than the average vehicle.”
“SHOULD NOT BE A DEATH RISK”
Tesla’s autopilot system, which has been used in at least three Tesla vehicles involved in fatal U.S. accidents since 2016, has been under increasing scrutiny.
NHTSA told Reuters last month it had opened 27 special investigations into accidents involving Tesla vehicles, 23 of which are still active, in accidents believed to be related to the use of autopilots.
Tesla did not respond to a request for comment. The stock closed 3.4% on Monday before rising 1.5% after trading Musk following Musk’s tweet.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, wrote on Twitter that “using Tesla’s driverless system – or anyone else – should not pose a risk of death. Advances in driving technique must first and foremost be safe.”
The NTSB, which makes safety recommendations but cannot force recalls, said its investigation into the Texas accident would focus “on the operation of the vehicle and the post-accident fire”.
Firefighters said it took four hours to completely extinguish the fire because of the car’s lithium-ion battery.